Raipur Night

by Owen Berkeley-Hill, October 2010

It was going to be a long night, and we were looking forward to it. Six hours of start-stop chugging through the Orissa jungles had finally brought us to Raipur from the clearing in the forest called Harishaker Road (HSK). Lakhna, Naupada Road, Kharia Road, Mahasamund, Belsonda and Aurang Mahanadi were behind us. I knew these names by heart, these small stops on the branch line to the East Coast and Waltair. We were on our way back to Bombay. It was October 1958, soon after the monsoons. An hour and a half was not enough leeway between the morning train and 2 Up, Howrah-Bombay Mail, and so Dad agreed with Uncle John to take the passenger train the previous evening. I suspect that mitigating the risk of missing the Mail was one consideration, but Dad was mad keen too, and a night on the station of a big junction was not something one dismissed lightly.

The First Class waiting room was partially full but we managed to find three planter's chairs for the three of us. Uncle's staff had provided us with supper which we had had on the train, and so the only thing left to do was to settle down for the night -- if we could. Interesting things planter's chairs: even more laid back than a chaise lounge, but with the added bonus of two long arm which can be extended further to act as leg rests. Only British planters would see nothing wrong in sitting or lying in a chair, in wide-brimmed khaki shorts, with feet stretched out and spread wide on two arms. Perhaps their diet required this position to prevent any flatulence building up a dangerous head of steam. We laid back; we extended the arms and rested our legs on them as all seasoned travellers did. We tried to sleep through the whirr of the punkahs (ceiling fans) and the occasional eruption from the other residents. All progress diminishes the romantic aspects of the things it replaces. These ceiling fans were no exception. The Mark 1 punkah was a series of carpets suspended from the beams and tied together by rope. At the end of the rope, outside the building was the pankah-wallah, the guy who pulled the rope occasionally to create a cooling draft in the offices. In the absence of electricity back in HSK, the office, a long bungalow, had a punkah and a wallah who had tied the rope to his big toe which he occasionally flicked. Being too good an opportunity to miss, and to my knowledge there being no exam or qualification required, I asked the wallah if I could have a go. Enthusiasm got the better of sense and the punkah-wallah's gentle tug was replaced by a flat-out heave-ho, and angry yells from the offices as carefully arranged papers in IN and OUT trays had their first experience of flight. The Mark 2s droned on in the waiting room, but there was a world on that platform beyond the doors of the waiting room, a world that beckoned like any Narnia. This was a busy station and the fanfare greeting the arrival of every train was a temptation which was impossible to resist.

Darkness lends a mystery and magic which spur the imagination of any boy. The rakes of goods trucks which hinder the view only feed that imagination. Add a shunting engine obscured from view by the rakes and whose presence can only be followed by its belching funnel, and imaginations are now in overdrive. Darkness suggests track after track after track as far as the eye can see. Darkness suggests that somewhere there is an engine shed, that Mecca for every right-thinking boy. Darkness suggests that this engine shed would have at least forty of the biggest and best steam engines. Sadly, the light of day brings in the unwanted reality: just a few passing loops; a shed with three engines, with only one with even the hint of steam.

At the bottom of the pecking order or engine cast system, in a land where these things really matter, is the shunter. That night that shunter helped develop a vocabulary based on "Joff Jing". I suppose we had inherited a tendency to onomatopoeia; perhaps from our Dad. The complete expression based on this sad old relic from the War was the rhythm, "Joff Clang Cling Clang Jing Clang Cling Clang Joff" which was later shortened to "Joff Jing" and then spawned the verb "to joff" and many more derivatives. For example, getting a barbecue lit and burning brightly needed as bit of joffing.

There was hardly a pulse in the station. Without making its excuses, a rake slowly squealed into motion and disappeared stage left. We only heard the puffing of the engine just before the red taillight on the guards van blinked out of existence. This exposed the shunter, its driver and fireman who were leaning out of the cab waiting for points and signals to change. Occasionally, the dull glow of the firebox silhouetted the inside of the cab. A wave of the torch in acknowledgement; the engine coughed and joff-jinged slowly to a rake of trucks. Many years later, I was to realise that the "cling clang", romantic though it was to our ears, was a cry for some serious maintenance.

The resident three-legged dog inspected dark shadows between the sleepers along the track, but even this was half hearted. The platform was strewn with people sleeping alongside their luggage, sleeping in the inimitable way of travellers in India. Covered from head to toe in a sheet, this can be quite disconcerting to the inexperienced foreigner. As the shunter was not providing sufficient theatre, we decided to explore the rest of the platform. Outside the station master's office hung the station "bell": nothing bell shaped and polished, but a piece of rail with the web partially removed to form a very large tuning fork. Apart from the dozing corpses there was very little activity within the lighted section of the platform. Coffee sellers, tea sellers, bangle sellers, sweets and snack sellers and those selling "paan, bidi, cigarettes" had all disappeared through lack of custom. As we neared the outer reaches of the lighted section we came across other services provided for the waiting traveller. In a secluded part of the platform a man was having his ears cleaned. Another was having his head "massaged", if massaged was appropriate. We were fascinated by the ferocity with which the masseuse battered the head of his client. Two fascinated boys was not what either the client or the masseuse wanted and we were asked politely to leave.

As we made our way back to the heart of the platform, we heard the bell being rung. I knew this to be the signal that the train which Raipur was expecting, had arrived at the previous station. A few corpses came to life and began preparing themselves for their journey. A few people sauntered into the station; some of these were the sellers who needed time to get their products ready for sale. To many, a busy Indian platform is good theatre, and so others were just "casing the joint" in order to get the best seats in the house. Big or small, in those days the railway station in any town, village or halt was the epicentre of life. Harishanker Road was no exception. The evening train to Raipur, and the morning train to Waltair, where the highlights of the social calendar. It is not just the curiosity of seeing who had arrived or was leaving, but the ritual of receiving a train and then sending it off.

The bell was rung again, and I was told this signified that the train had left the last station before Raipur. This was the signal for preparations on the platform to pick up pace: more sellers appearing; more gawpers gaping; and more corpses rising from the dead. What was, in Indian terms, a relatively quiet place now grew noisier. As the population on the platform grew, so did the sellers see the opportunity to hawk their wares, or perhaps practice their chants for the big arrival. Even this late at night the platform was fairly crowded. Responding to an audience, or perhaps a change of signals, the shunter shunted, this time with a spring in its joff. In its enthusiasm it sent a few trucks a shade too briskly down the tracks to bump into their colleagues with a series of bangs. On the platform milk was being brewed for the tea and coffee, warm snacks were being rearranged decoratively as were the bangles: for the brief window of opportunity a stationary train represents, presentation is all in a cutthroat, highly competitive world.

From my experiences at Harishanker Road we knew the next bell signalled the arrival of the train at the station's outer signals. Our excitement increased with the pace of activity. If we were vigilant, we might just pick out the engine's headlight. And there it was, a powerful beam which pierced the night and lit up the rails. I'm sure there was much activity in the cab of that engine with the driver trying to pick out his "road" and trying to make sure he brought the train to the perfect halt, but to us this was a picture of a being that knew it was the centre of attention; knew that it had to make a perfect entrance; and knew it was on top of its game. The train rolled in, the engine passing us in a symphony of joffs, jings, and clanks. I am sure that even if this engine had been perfectly maintained it would have made sure that its audience was not disappointed by the efficiency of silence. Yes, electric and diesel locomotives are much more efficient, but they have no soul and do not understand theatre.

It was a WP! And this was an express with a long line of carriages gossiping amongst themselves about the last long thrash to Raipur. It was a WP with a powerful headlight at the centre of its bullet nose. To emphasise the point that the Raja had arrived the WP growled its unique call. In India whistles vary from the traditional shrill shrieks of the Brits to the flatulent horns of the local trains, but nothing signified Indian Railways as much as that Baldwin growl. Back in Harishanker Road, around 10:30 at night the passenger train from Raipur would growl its readiness to move on to Kantabanji. A boy sleeping under mosquito nets on the veranda because of the heat had not heard it arrive. That growl, for which he had been waiting, fending off the sleep that was trying to embrace him, reassured him that all was right with the world. As the train picked up speed and the engine its tempo, sleepy ears tracked the progress of the train as it snaked its way through Orissa jungles. This beautiful symphony continued as the train got into its rhythm finishing off as a slow and enticing diminuendo. Perhaps it knew I was listening and acknowledged the fact by growling to say, "Thanks for staying up. Now please go to sleep!" which I did. A very American sound had become a quintessential part of the Indian landscape.

As each carriage made its entrance and paraded by, they represented a microcosm of Indian society. Carriage after carriage of crushed Third Class; the superior glass indifference of Air Conditioned; the barred windows of First; the dining car with its smart bearers still dressed in the turbans, sashes, cummerbunds and whites of the old Bengal Nagpur Railway; and the anonymity of Second Class which was soon to disappear. Even before the train came to a halt, the unique Indian way of entraining and detraining a Third Class carriage had begun. Trunks, bags and little boys were being passed through the bar-less windows in order to have some certainty of getting on the train. Others jumped off either to demonstrate their agility or because they were overcome by the joy of meeting their loved ones waiting on the platform.

Another growl soon after the train had come to a halt was the WP's way of letting everyone know that even stars need some refreshment. It had sauntered off to get watered, coaled, and to have its grate lovingly scratched. After all, it was only human.

While the Raja was being pampered, the hawkers were doing their best to sell as much as they could in the 20 or 30 minutes the train was at rest. Some transactions where conducted with efficiency: I'm not sure it is good form, even in India, to argue over the price a cup of tea or coffee. But bangles are a different thing: many colours shapes and sizes to choose from; minds to be changed again and again; and prices to be haggled over. It would be bad manners to do anything else. "Paan, bidi sigarate!", "Kapi, kapi, kapi!" ("coffee"), "Chai garam!" ("hot tea"), "Paalis souse!" ("polish shoes") (Where did he come from?), "Wada, wada, dahi wada!", "Jumping Chickens!" (Don't ask! Samosas to you and me): the cacophony grew more intense the closer it got to departure.

Having been fed and pampered, the Raja slid back to the waiting train, its movements masked by the row on the platform. A gentle bump and sway announced that His Majesty was ready to move on: Raipur was nice but it had a full agenda and other places to visit. I'm not sure how the stationmaster was summoned, but he arrived in a sparkling and starched white uniform which was capped by a white sola topee (at this time of night?). In the hierarchy of Indian Railways dignity is all. Armed with a whistle and red and green flags the stationmaster looked at his watch with self-importance. With perfect timing of the dramatic pause, he raised his green flag and blew his whistle to suggest that if the Raja was bored he might like to move on. This humble request was acknowledged both by the train's guard, and by a long growl from His Majesty. Frenzy now gave way to hysteria as friends and relatives hugged each other, said their goodbyes and shed obligatory tears. For those not so emotionally involved this was the time to seal the deal on that bangle or Jumping Chicken. The dejected carriages now groaned in unison as they were dragged away from their rest in Raipur. The final carriage, the guard's van, rolled by purposefully as if to say it understood its purpose and did not share in the muttering and grumbling of its sisters. As the train picked up speed the engine signalled his thanks by a long blast, or perhaps it was just his exuberance to be back on the road. As the red light of the guards van diminished into the night, the pace of life on the platform quickly died down. New corpses replaced the ones that had been miraculously brought to life. The sellers were busy, silently totting up their takings and planning their stocks for the next train. In an attempt to attract attention, the shunter joffed, but knew this sideshow after the main event was not going to attract an audience. The dog appeared sniffing hopefully for any overlooked or discarded titbits. It still had three legs.

The first-class waiting room was a sea of calm after all that excitement. The drone of the ceiling fans, snores and occasional punctuations of flatulence only helped to emphasise this haven. After our own contributions resulting from the odd Jumping Chicken, we gave up the vigil and surrendered to sleep.